This week (today and Thursday) we are considering the June 17, 2013 document, jointly published by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, called “From Conflict to Communion.” The paper’s introduction states:
In 2017, Lutheran and Catholic Christians will commemorate together the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. Lutherans and Catholics today enjoy a growth in mutual understanding, cooperation, and respect. They have come to acknowledge that more unites than divides them: above all, common faith in the Triune God and the revelation in Jesus Christ, as well as recognition of the basic truths of the doctrine of justification.
Here is a basic outline of the document’s contents:
Foreword and Introduction
I. Commemorating the Reformation in an Ecumenical and Global Age
II. New Perspectives on Martin Luther and the Reformation
III. A Historical Sketch of the Lutheran Reformation and the Catholic Response
IV. Basic Themes of Martin Luther’s Theology in Light of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogues
V. Called to Common Commemoration
VI. Five Ecumenical Imperatives
Appendix: including Common Statements of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity
One of the important perspectives here is that we must view the past through the lens of ongoing developments, not vice versa.
It is no longer adequate simply to repeat earlier accounts of the Reformation period, which presented Lutheran and Catholic perspectives separately and often in opposition to one another. Historical remembrance always selects from among a great abundance of historical moments and assimilates the selected elements into a meaningful whole. Because these accounts of the past were mostly oppositional, they not infrequently intensified the conflict between the confessions and sometimes led to open hostility.
…In light of the renewal of Catholic theology evident in the Second Vatican Council, Catholics today can appreciate Martin Luther’s reforming concerns and regard them with more openness than seemed possible earlier.
While the Council of Trent largely defined Catholic relations with Lutherans for several centuries, its legacy must now be viewed through the lens of the actions of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). This Council made it possible for the Catholic Church to enter the ecumenical movement and leave behind the charged polemic atmosphere of the post-Reformation era. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitate Humanae), and the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) are foundational documents for Catholic ecumenism. Vatican II, while affirming that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, also acknowledged, “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity” (LG 8). There was a positive appreciation of what Catholics share with other Christian churches such as the creeds, baptism, and the Scriptures. A theology of ecclesial communion affirmed that Catholics are in a real, if imperfect, communion with all who confess Jesus Christ and are baptized (UR 2).
When discussing theological themes from Luther and the Reformation, only four are discussed in this document: justification, eucharist, ministry, and Scripture and tradition. Each topic is treated in a three-fold manner — (1) by looking at Luther’s approach, (2) Catholic concerns, and (3) how Luther and Catholic perspectives have been brought into dialogue with one another.
For Lutherans, the key theological theme is and always has been that of justification by faith. Here is some of what the document says about this in the “ecumenical dialogue” portion of its treatment:
Together Catholics and Lutherans confess: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works” (JDDJ 15). The phrase “by grace alone” is further explained in this way: “the message of justification…tells us that as sinners our new life is solely due to the forgiving and renewing mercy that God imparts as a gift and we receive in faith, and never can merit in any way” (JDDJ 17).
It is within this framework that the limits and the dignity of human freedom can be identified. The phrase “by grace alone,” in regard to a human being’s movement toward salvation, is interpreted in this way: “We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation. The freedom they possess in relation to persons and the things of this world is no freedom in relation to salvation” (JDDJ 19).
When Lutherans insist that a person can only receive justification, they mean, however, thereby “to exclude any possibility of contributing to one’s own justification, but do not deny that believers are fully involved personally in their faith, which is effected by God’s Word” (JDDJ 21).
When Catholics speak of preparation for grace in terms of “cooperation,” they mean thereby a “personal consent” of the human being that is “itself an effect of grace, not an action arising from innate human abilities” (JDDJ 20). Thus, they do not invalidate the common expression that sinners are “incapable of turning by themselves to God to seek deliverance, of meriting their justification before God, or of attaining salvation by their own abilities. Justification takes place solely by God’s grace” (JDDJ 19).
Since faith is understood not only as affirmative knowledge, but also as the trust of the heart that bases itself on the Word of God, it can further be said jointly: “Justification takes place ‘by grace alone’ (JD nos 15 and 16), by faith alone; the person is justified ‘apart from works’ (Rom 3:28, cf. JD no. 25)” (JDDJ, Annex 2C).
What was often torn apart and attributed to one or the other confession but not to both is now understood in an organic coherence: “When persons come by faith to share in Christ, God no longer imputes to them their sin and through the Holy Spirit effects in them an active love. These two aspects of God’s gracious action are not to be separated” (JDDJ 22).
Both this document and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification from which it quotes find that both communions have come to affirm essentially the same view of justification. Our common commitments are weightier than our disagreements.
“In light of this consensus the remaining differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis in the understanding of justification are acceptable. Therefore the Lutheran and the Catholic explications of justification are in their differences open to one another and do not destroy the consensus regarding the basic truths” (JDDJ 40). “Thus the doctrinal condemnations of the sixteenth century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration” (JDDJ 41). This is a highly remarkable response to the conflicts over this doctrine that lasted for nearly half a millennium.